Lobbyist Register should be Open Data

The media has paid a lot of attention recently to various objections to the UK's Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. The register of consultant lobbyists outlined in Clauses 3-7 has received relatively little coverage. We recently joined a number of organisations in writing a letter calling for the register to be published as open data. This post provides some background on our position.

The goal of public registers is to make information available to the public. It used to be that such public registers could be inspected by anyone but were only accessible (as paper copies) in particular places, such as council buildings or local libraries.

As computing and the internet have spread, public registers are now generally published online, which in general makes it easier for people to view those registers. However, this is only the first step in providing better access. We believe that if they are to serve their purpose, by default, public registers should be available as open data, namely:

  • in a machine-readable format
  • under an open licence

A machine-readable register can be manipulated on a computer. Think of the difference between a table in a PDF document and a spreadsheet. You can read a table in a PDF and search it, but a spreadsheet can be sorted, filtered and graphed. This makes it easier for people to extract the information they are interested in from the register. It also makes it easier to analyse the register to create new insights.

Machine-readability removes the technical barriers to processing information in a public register. An open licence removes the legal barriers. An explicit open licence reassures people who want to work with the data within a public register that they can do so. It permits them to reuse and republish the register, with few constraints (such as attribution). It ensures that everyone can use the information in the register; that there will be no privileged access to the information that it contains.

The government creates new public registers only rarely. When it does, as in the Lobbying Bill, we would like to see its publication as open data being given a firm legal footing. The legislation should say that the register:

  • must be published online
  • must be held in a machine-readable format
  • must contain certain basic information
  • must be available under an open licence

Business reusers of open data need guarantees about its long term availability. Legislation is a great way for the government to provide these long term guarantees — legal obligations are significantly stronger than policy statements.

Regardless of the other issues with the Lobbying Bill, and indeed with the scope and content of the register itself, we believe that the current wording of the Bill misses an opportunity to make a firm commitment to open data and transparency.